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This just in from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

restaurant (n.) 1821, from French restaurant “a restaurant,” originally “food that restores,” noun use of present participle of restaurer “to restore or refresh,” from Old French restorer (see restore).

In 1765 a man by the name of Boulanger, also known as “Champ d’Oiseaux” or “Chantoiseau,” opened a shop near the Louvre (on either the rue des Poulies or the rue Bailleul, depending on which authority one chooses to believe). There he sold what he called restaurants or bouillons restaurants–that is, meat-based consommés intended to “restore” a person’s strength. Ever since the Middle Ages the word restaurant had been used to describe any of a variety of rich bouillons made with chicken, beef, roots of one sort or another, onions, herbs, and, according to some recipes, spices, crystallized sugar, toasted bread, barley, butter, and even exotic ingredients such as dried rose petals, Damascus grapes, and amber. In order to entice customers into his shop, Boulanger had inscribed on his window a line from the Gospels: “Venite ad me omnes qui stomacho laboratis et ego vos restaurabo.” He was not content simply to serve bouillon, however. He also served leg of lamb in white sauce, thereby infringing the monopoly of the caterers’ guild. The guild filed suit, which to everyone’s astonishment ended in a judgment in favor of Boulanger. [Jean-Robert Pitte, “The Rise of the Restaurant,” in “Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present,” English editor Albert Sonnenfeld, transl. Clarissa Botsford, 1999, Columbia University Press]

Bouillon_de_volaille

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Home Sweet, Hungry Home

Reading PA Tops Poverty List, ran a story in the New York Times this week.

Reading, a struggling city of 88,000 … has earned the unwelcome distinction of having the largest share of its residents living in poverty, barely edging out Flint, Mich., according to new Census Bureau data. The count includes only cities with populations of 65,000 or more, and has a margin of error that makes it difficult to declare a winner — or, perhaps more to the point, a loser.

Back home from serving another dinner at the homeless shelter in Reading, just around the corner from this exquisite mural, I feel the need to put the Times story in perspective. Because numbers don’t tell the whole story.

But first, the numbers. 41.3% of 88,000 people means that 36,000 of my neighbors don’t have enough money to make ends meet. (In Pennsylvania, poverty is defined as $22,000 for a family of four. How many ends can you meet at that rate?) Thirty-six thousand poor people is way too many, but ten times that many — 362,000 people — live in Philadelphia, which has 25% poverty. Even Detroit — my home town and the poster child for failed cities — has fewer people living in poverty (268,000) than Philadelphia. So our number is huge and terrible, but when we’re talking about poverty in the United States, it’s not a very meaningful statistic.

Myriad community and social service organizations do heroic work to ameliorate the city’s problems — Opportunity House, Berks Women in Crisis, Greater Berks Food Bank, United Way, Salvation Army, Goodwill, churches. Moreover, our obvious distress has prompted a lot of thought about how we got into this situation and some creative action to fix it.

Back in 2009, when the news came out that Reading was the poorest city in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and sixth in the nation, my friend Steve Glassman and I established the Rebuilding Reading Poverty Commission. Hundreds of concerned citizens got involved — but only after we promised not to create another report that would sit on a shelf collecting dust. Dozens of passionate volunteers worked together for more than a year, putting together a different kind of report — an action plan aimed at realistic goals in four broad categories: economic development, housing, education and policy and governance.

Obviously it was no silver bullet, but some of our recommendations have borne fruit — in programs, policies and subtle shifts in thinking. There is a glimmer of awareness that the city can’t go it alone, and that the fortunes of the more affluent suburbs are inextricably linked to the urban core. Policy makers are beginning to acknowledge that the Hispanic majority is not going away and indeed, might be cause for celebration and opportunity. There are immensely creative private and non-profit initiatives such as the Reading Roots Urban Farm, a permaculture enterprise that sustainably grows salad greens, microgreens, herbs, flowers, and garden plants.

And there are glorious exceptions. Lauer’s Park Elementary, the poorest elementary school in the poorest city in the United States, has just emerged as the only school in Pennsylvania to achieve 90/90/90 status. Ninety percent of its students are minority, 95% qualify for Free and Reduced-Price Meals, and 91% scored proficient in math on state tests.

My beautiful city has a lot going for it, but like dozens of cities in Pennsylvania and thousands throughout the United States, Reading is fundamentally unsustainable. Mayor Tom McMahon says we’re the canary in the coalmine — a harbinger of what’s to come for other cities like ours with a  shrinking tax base and increased demand for public services.

Because with all those people not making ends meet, who’s left to pay taxes? Our sewer mains cracked during the big September rains, spewing toxic garbage into the Schuylkill River. Bridges cracked in the earthquake. And education? No help from the governor. Governor Corbett’s savage $1 billion plus cuts to basic K-12 education fall disproportionately on the poor. Reading loses $19 million in education funding this year — more than $1,000/student in in a city where 91% of the district’s 18,000 students qualify for Free and Reduced-Price Meals (FARM). Three miles away, a more affluent district has lost $112/student.

City Hall has made a difficult situation even worse by adopting an adversarial relationship with landlords and businesses. Businesses wishing to establish themselves here are dissuaded by the mountain of fees, permits, delays and other impediments thrown in their path. Good landlords who follow the rules and maintain their properties in tip top shape are treated like such pariahs that they take their investments elsewhere. From those  left behind, holding mortgages that may well be under water, the city is extracting an additional 20.4% property tax increase. Not much blood left in this stone.

City Hall has done its part, as have the major employers — Lucent, Dana Corporation, Baldwin Brass — who have upped and left us. But Reading’s current situation is not their fault alone. Neither is it the fault of the poor who now make up close to half of the population, or the middle class who have abandoned ship. As Cornell West is busy pointing out, if the War on Poverty were real, we would actually be spending money on it. Instead, we’re stuck here here in the vortex of “market forces,” racism, recession and failed economic policies.

According to David Rusk, former mayor of Albuquerque and one of America’s foremost champions of regional strategies, it’s not so much economic policy but housing, education and transportation policy that has for three decades incentivized the middle class to move out to the suburbs, leaving the cities as warehouses for the poor.

Jambalaya for dinner at Opportunity House.

Reading has rebuilt itself before and I devoutly believe it will do it again. Once upon a time, the Reading Railroad — yes, the one on the Monopoly board — was the biggest company in the world. We were the stocking capitol of the world, then — when manufacturing went south and offshore — we became the Outlet Capital of the World. The city is full of smart, loving, creative people who are passionate about our city, and working hard to make it work.

But to save Reading and cities like it, we have to match our local efforts with regional strategies that can overcome growing fiscal disparities, concentrated poverty, and urban sprawl. We have to have jobs and lots of them — decent, family sustaining jobs, not minimum wage jobs or those that rape the land and leave it poisoned for generations. We have to have funding for infrastructure development and the education of our children. Otherwise — while the superrich get richer — a lot more people in Reading and Berks, including those who currently have jobs and who imagine they’re safely within the middle class, will fall into poverty.

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